American Independence Day: Musings on Civilisation

July 5, 2011

Today is American Independence Day. I had the pleasure of enjoying it with family and friends. We had a delicious meal, and drank some of the best wine that I have ever had, truly. The hospitality of my dear family member was without rival, and I very much enjoyed the day.

My host was a gentleman who has done quite well with his own electronics business. His house is large and lovely, and is equipped with the finest of televisions, music equipment, a hot tub, and many other amenities. He is a very successful man, and it was this success that allowed him to have such a lovely day with guests.

I, being one to always provoke (I am not sure why I was born this way!), could not help thinking about travel, and in particular, about what people tend to identify as civilised. In the traditional Western meaning of the word, today was a very civilised day with a very civilised host.

The idea of being civilised came about in the ancient Roman empire. The Latin word civis simply referred to anyone who had Roman citizenship, either by birth, or by purchase. Being a Roman citizen had many great benefits, not the least of which was that citizens could not be crucified. Over time, the ides of being a civis grew to be associated with being of the upper classes. It is this idea of citizenship that influenced Victorian England, which then influenced most of Western culture. Today, the idea of being civilised is regarded, in popular culture, as being that of being wealthy, well-mannered, and advanced in technology.

Of course, Anthropology has long-ago stopped using the word, and has changed its stance. The general idea today, in academic circles, is that there is no such thing as a superior culture, but rather that all cultures have equal value, and can express everything — in their own way — that all other cultures can express.

I am planning to teach in Rwanda in the Fall. If you know anything about Rwanda, then you know that it is about as far from my experience today as one can get. Although Rwanda’s recovery from the 1994 genocide has been remarkable, a true model for the world. it still remains, compared to the USA, a poor, developing nation. But, does that mean that Rwanda is uncivilised, as many in the West would assert?

I would like to argue for the traditions and cultures of not only Rwanda, but all nations considered uncivilised and primitive by the West. The basis of this criticism largely comes from the state of technology in a nation, and this progression is almost always measured against the West. Allow me to give an example.

Today, we enjoyed the fruits of Western Civilisation. We sipped fine wine from very nice glasses. We listened to music piped in from invisible speakers built into the house. We chatted as we enjoyed the hot tub, and if it became too hot outside, we simply stepped inside to the luxury of central climate control. Our conversation was pleasant, and included nothing very controversial or inflammatory. Now do not misunderstand me — this was all what was expected, and made for a very nice day!

Today, somewhere in Africa, members of a small village emerged from their earthen huts. They paid their respect to the village king. They ate food that they had found in the vicinity, and they drank beer fermented from bananas, as they danced and sang. They had no air conditioning, no televisions, no professional music piped in from invisible speakers, and certainly no hot tub.

The first reaction of the West is to say that these Africans are uncivilised, that then have not yet progressed to the pinnacle of the West. Because these Africans wore loincloths, they clearly, they were not up on fashion. Because they hunted for their food, they were poor. Because they lived in earthen huts, they did not understand modern construction. Because they did not have a hot tub, they were missing out on modern technology.

I argue that both groups — the Westerners, and the Africans — were just as valid culturally and socially. The West places a huge emphasis on money, technology, and status, while Africa places a greater emphasis on community, on family, on ancestors, and on living within the natural world. Who is anyone to really say that one is better? Simply because we in the West enjoy our little toys does not mean that we are automatically superior. We have lost touch with nature, with our ancestors, with our village. Many Westerners have never even met their neighbors! Many have sacrificed their place in the community, to the god of money. Why is this objectively superior?

I believe that all cultures have their virtue, and their value. Simply because some people are different, does not mean that they are inferior. And, to assume that Western evolution is the only path that is reasonable for humans to take, is absurd. Non-Western cultures are not simple failed efforts to measure up to the West. Rather, they have just as many things of value as the West. They are simply different things.

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